This paper was presented by Nakita Valerio for the Annual HCGSA Conference at the University of Alberta, February 2016.

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On January 27th, 2010, I stood in the freezing cold outside Auschwitz-Birkenau after a long day of watching the ceremonies for its 65th anniversary of liberation. Visitors had been huddled around burning fires just beyond the women’s camp on the way to the gas chambers. In a large tent across the infamous rail tracks, survivors, politicians, and press had listened to speeches in Polish and Hebrew. Violins had been played. At the end of a twelve-hour day, with the sun having set over the camp, many of us started to make our way toward the exit to go back to the nearby town, or to catch a bus to Krakow. In the ‘parking lot’, we met with mass confusion as guards hurried everyone along in the dark, survivors were shuffled onto buses wearing their striped uniforms, and cars took off left and right. We were informed that there were no taxis and no buses for us who remained. We would have to walk five kilometers in the cold back to the town if we hoped to leave Birkenau that night. One woman from our group grabbed me and we raced over to a tour bus as it was leaving. She managed to convince the driver to let us on but we were told that we must stand at the back and we were to remain absolutely silent: we had hitched a ride with survivors. As the bus filled with the sounds of their laughter and their chattering in a variety of languages, the woman turned to me, complaining in English about the poor organization of the ceremonies and a litany of other criticisms about its memorialization, in general. This woman confided in me that she was one of the main curators at Bergen-Belsen and when I asked her why she thought it was such a problem at Auschwitz, she replied: “It’s because Auschwitz is in Poland.”

This unusual comment has always stuck with me, not only because it is indicative of a kind of German-centric authority in memorializing the Holocaust but also because it demonstrates a narrative common about Poland, which even permeates within Poland, about a kind of ineptitude at existing in general, never mind at memorializing what is considered one of the most important sites of memory for the Holocaust. This curator is not the only person to express a sense of insufficiency when visiting the camp, in fact, entire books have tried to get at why the memorials at Auschwitz and Auschwitz-Birkenau leave the visitor with a nagging sense of incompleteness and “restlessness of the soul”. Such authours as Jonathan Webber argue that the Holocaust is a rupture in the fabric of creation, and that trying to identify its causes (morally) leads to insurmountable issues for the writers of history, thus rendering any memorial hopelessly inadequate, presumably more so than memorials normally are. Webber is not alone, citing a slew of authours grappling with the immense anti-ethical implications of the Holocaust and failing to come up with solutions for curators of this critical space. Webber concludes his article by citing the lack of a unified religious (specifically Jewish) voice as crucial for reconciling the immensity of the Holocaust to our inability to reason with it and, by extension, as a comfort for our collective morality.

I argue that it is neither some kind of perceived Polish ineptitude nor a lack of religious unity nor existential trauma that are to blame in terms of the majority of problems people have with the camp, and, in fact, the sacralisation that happens in the latter formulations, which make Auschwitz the inverse of the Kantian sublime, inhibit our ability to assess Auschwitz for the historical space that it is. The symbol of Auschwitz is no longer the historical place of Auschwitz and something very valuable and illuminating has been lost in the process. Considering I am working in the field of social memory and the Holocaust, you would think I would be deeply interested in the symbolic currency of the symbol of Auschwitz and how it is used in various mindscapes of cultural systems around the world –and I am. But my point in trying to ground us in the physical space of Auschwitz once more is to note something of urgent necessity which thinkers who sacralize the camp run the risk of overlooking, and which could have dire consequences for the symbolic use of Auschwitz in the future: its conservation.

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Before I get into the stark challenges of conservation, which are wholly unique to it and will illuminate a major reason for the sense of insufficiency in the camps, I want to discuss both the problems of religious unity and sacralization briefly. An article published on August 10, 2007 by The Krakow Post was entitled “U.S. Sacred Ground Foundation wants to build sanctuary in Auschwitz.” The concept behind the proposed monument “was to reflect a symbolic burial ground for those who died in the concentration camp.”[1] The presumed purpose of something like this is to recognize the diversity of people who died in Auschwitz and whose remains ought to be honoured. It is also assumed that this sort of project has been undertaken because of the impossibility of separating intermingled remains for appropriate burial according to each victim’s religion. Ultimately, however, “The International Auschwitz Board [was] not keen on the project [because] Auschwitz is considered to be a cemetery today and Judaism does not permit any monument erection within the grounds of a cemetery.”[2] Other such memorials have been proposed and rejected in the past, preferring instead to be built outside of the camp where they “have a greater chance of success.”[3] This is but one example of how Auschwitz has become a contested space. Some might argue that contestation is an inherent part of constructing culturally important places, particularly those that are religiously sacred; that, by virtue of defining a place for one group, others will necessarily be excluded. This is a bleak reality that does not bode well for the future of those seeking to heal at Auschwitz for numerous demographics who flock there looking for closure and answers, nor for those who want to use it as a space of learning for future generations. It is, in my opinion, that under exceptional circumstances, exceptions need to be made. An example of this type of exception was reported again in The Krakow Post when an Aboriginal Elder from the Budawang people in New South Wales Australia was permitted to perform the first ever Aboriginal healing ceremony in Auschwitz.[4] Perhaps it was the fact that 59-year-old Noel Butler had no link whatsoever to any identifiable religious group that had been victimized at Auschwitz that he was permitted to do this. However, this reasoning does not hold true for a mass Muslim prayer for the dead held inside the camp and conducted by imams from around the world on May 23, 2013. Rather, perhaps the acceptance of such acts of ritual healing have been accepted by the establishment because of the impermanence of such ceremonies.

Religious contestation of the space is, by far, the least of the worries associated with the camp. Most of these attempts at closure and religious healing in the space are thwarted by its sacralization in another realm: with the elevation of Auschwitz as the site for commemorating the tragedy of the Holocaust, as somehow emblematic of the entire historical episode’s face. By making Auschwitz untouchable, a kind of gruesome hierophany at which all the darkness of the human soul broke through and is somehow still emanating from that space, many historians have lost the ability to see what really underlies the first main obstacle to memorialization, something completely left aside in the conversation: that is, conservation.

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In “Wisdom Sits in Places” from Senses of Place, Keith H. Basso, states that “the self-conscious experience of place is inevitably a product and expression of the self whose experience it is, and therefore, unavoidably, the nature of that experience is shaped at every turn by the personal and social biography of the one who sustains it.”[5] Ultimately, our sense of a place like Auschwitz derives from our animation of place and its reciprocal animation of “the ideas and feelings of persons who attend to them… [and] this process of interanimation related to the fact that  familiar places are experienced as inherently meaningful, their  significance and value found to reside in the form and arrangement of their observable characteristics.”[6] Furthermore, Basso (quoting Jean-Paul Sartre) notes that things can reflect for individuals only their knowledge of them. In this understanding, it is possible to imagine an individual who has never heard of the Holocaust  and, in coming to Auschwitz, would not realize what took place there – in fact, this idea of place necessitates that hypothetical in order to counteract the alleged inverse-sublimity/sacrality that some people describe as now “emanating” from Auschwitz. What an individual such as this picks up on from the site itself is not the moral black hole that many claim is now there, but may be indicators from the landscape, both natural and altered, that offer subliminal or overt clues as to what took place there. As Basso points out, “places come to generate their own fields of meaning… [by being] animated by the thoughts and feelings of persons who attend to them[;] places express only what their animators enable them to say.”[7]

The record for the preservation of Auschwitz has been grim and it is clear that the primary reasons for this relates to inadequate funding that has hampered the process of restoring the buildings and other structures of the camps.[8]

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Jolanta Banas, the head of preservation at Auschwitz has stated matter-of-factly, “Our main problem is sheer numbers. We measure shoes in ten thousands.”[9] When the sum is totaled, Banas and her staff are responsible for the monitoring of 150 buildings and more than 300 ruins at the two main sites of Auschwitz-Birkenau.[10] According to Robert Jan Van Pelt, a cultural historian in the school of architecture at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, and the leading expert on the construction of Auschwitz, “80 to 90 percent of the original structures are gone or in a state of ruin.”[11]

Part of the issue with this state of affairs is the size of the camp and thus the sheer volume of funds that are required on a continual basis for the maintenance and upkeep of the grounds. For anyone who has not been there, the three camps comprising the Auschwitz zone are enormous and total 40 square kilometers or 4000 hectares. In comparison, the other major killing zones on Polish soil are tiny. Treblinka, is a mere 17 hectares. It was never conceived of as anything other than a place to commit murder and the overwhelming majority of people sent there were killed within two hours of their arrival, totaling a minimum of 870,000 murders. Belzec camp near Lublin, Poland (another death center only) was reported to have been the site of murder for at least 434,508 people. It measures only 27 hectares. Sobobir death camp claimed the lives of between 200,000 and 250,000 prisoners and it measures only 24 hectares. Auschwitz, on the other hand, was part of a larger agricultural and industrial experiment initiated by Heinrich Himmler to assist Germans of the Reich who had settled on stolen Polish land. Slave labour from the camp, involving around 10,000 prisoners at any given time, was part of the prerogative of the creation of Auschwitz. The size of the camp is the first major obstacle to preservation because the level of funding required is both enormous and in constant demand. The fact that the camps at Auschwitz-Birkenau has come to stand for the face of the entire Holocaust makes its preservation crucial for many and yet, it is in need of the most funding to do this, to the neglect of other killing centers.

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Reports immediately after the fall of the USSR indicated that many of the wooden barracks had rotted away, the crematoria were literally sinking into the ground, and the mountains of belongings stolen from the victims (from their hair to shoes, suitcases and eyeglasses) were breaking down. An article in the Ocala Star-Banner from February 19, 1990 indicated that Poland (which had toppled its Communist government only the summer before) had “formed a commission to change the 35-year-old museum exhibition, which highlight[ed] the Soviet army’s liberation of the camp but mention[ed] the Holocaust only in passing.”[12] Preservation cost estimates at that time were thought to be around $40 million. Frank Reiss, the vice-president of a New York foundation enlisted to help with the assessment of the site, called for an urgency in the repairing process, stating that “If nothing is done, in 10 to 20 years, the site will be practically non- existent…[and that] the tens of thousands of pairs of shoes…if you touch them, they fall to dust.”[13] The fact that these exhibits have not changed since the 1950s (until the present day) says a lot about the sense of urgency employed in addressing these urgent matters.

Preserving the structures and the artifacts of Auschwitz were not the only priorities for museum staff at this time. Former inmate, Kazimierz Smolen, who headed the museum group, has “struggled with the beautifying effect of ever-growing grass, the soothing sound of bird singing and the government’s limited resources to maintain the camp’s hellish authenticity.”[14] While some might assume that grass and birds were present when the Nazis were gassing prisoners, this was not always a reality. Firstly, Polish winters are very long and have high precipitation rates in the form of snow. This is why many visitors to the camp have expressed its especial bleakness when seen during the winter months as it resembles its former terror and what people expect of it much more eloquently. In the spring and summer months, the camp would have been very muddy or of hardened dirt because of the constant impact of numerous prisoners’ footfalls on what was once a grassy field. In this sense, Smolen is quite right that the current grass affects one’s overall experience of the camp when visited outside of the winter months. As Andrew Curry put it, “the scene [at Birkenau] was so peaceful it was almost impossible to imagine the sea of stinking mud that survivors describe.”[15]

It is also true that the grass threatens to overtake the boggy pool of ashes that still lies beyond the crematoria where remains were buried. If this is an issue that can (or should) be addressed is another point of contention in memorialization. Are curators supposed to “recreate” the experience for visitors? Does this lend itself to authenticity or Hollywood-esque practices? Reiss, in the exact same article, notes that rebuilding things to be as they were is unproductive, and that ruins should be preserved as they are: as ruins.

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Competing narratives about how preservation should happen continue to plague the allocation of limited funds, to the continued detriment of the decaying camps. Van Pelt, quoted above, has also stated that recreating the experience for viewers undermines the nihilism of the camps, particularly Birkenau. He has publicly stated that it is “the ultimate nihilistic place. A million people literally disappeared. Shouldn’t we confront people with the nothingness of the place? Seal it up. Don’t give people a sense that they can imitate the experience and walk in the steps of the people who were there.”[16] And yet, most people don’t share this view, particularly when the impending disappearance of the camp running parallel to the disappearance of Auschwitz survivors as time marches on.

The second point to take from Smolen’s comment is the inadequacy of funds that the Polish government has made available for undertaking such a massive preservation process. It should be noted that there are at least 13 important extermination, concentration and labour camps located in Poland alone –  all in varying stages of neglect, some in far worse condition than Auschwitz.  For example, the gas chambers at Sobobir weren’t unearthed (after being discovered beneath a road) until September 2014, likely due to the fact that the camp was closed in 1943, prior to the end of the War.[17] The number of places of historical responsibility for the government of Poland is seconded only by Germany. This has resulted in a number of unusual methods of preservation in the country, some of which people might call bizarre. This includes one program (called Tikkun and meaning “Fixing or Rectification” in hEBREW), started in 2003, which has enlisted the help of 1,500 inmates in Polish prisons to clean and repair Jewish cemeteries, and engage in Jewish cultural and learning activities such as touring extermination camps and watching films about Jewish life.[18] That the Polish government has contracted out its memorialization work to inmates at the local prison is a clear indication of the dire and desperate point to which the process has come.

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As a result of frustrations in the Polish government about the inadequacy of reactionary preventative measures, the Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation was founded in 2009 following repeated failed efforts by the Polish government to raise adequate funds for the preservation of the camps.[19] Just prior to this, the spokesman for the Polish government on the issue of Auschwitz, Jaroslaw Mensfelt stated, “Without outside help, Poland could have trouble retaining Auschwitz as a memorial site.”[20] This occurred due to continuous underestimations of the costs involved because of the size of the camp. Revisions of the budgets forced the government to seek more funding, exacerbating lucrative relationships previously established. In 2008, the director of the memorial, Piotr Cywinski, pointed out that “Poland has been mostly the sole up-keeper of the museum for 60 years now. In the 1990s and 2000s the programmes for conservation works financed by other countries were those that catered to the most urgent needs.”[21] However, because the site was never designed to last long and it was built by inexperienced prisoners, it is deteriorating at a much faster rate than anyone had anticipated. Cywinski has argued that this burden should not fall on Poland alone but rests with the international community, particularly the European Union which should share in it.[22] When asked to justify this stance, Cywinski gave an interesting response that verges on the abstraction outlined above. He said,

Auschwitz, as the only concentration camp, and at the same time extermination camp – the biggest of them all – a symbol of the terrible entirety, is one of the foundations of our post-war European civilisation. This is the reason why for me, turning to other countries for financial support is not accounting for historical responsibility. What is to be won here is not only the preservation of the past and memory, but the foundations of a future where we understand the importance of Auschwitz as a place where we should all meet.[23]

Thus, the Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation began with “the aim[…] to create a Perpetual Fund which will finance conservation work and preservation of all authentic remains of the former Nazi German Auschwitz concentration and extermination camp.”[24] The group’s mission statement says:

We created the Fund to make sure that future generations will have a possibility to see the authentic space which is not only a living witness of one of the biggest crimes in the history of mankind but also a place which has a fundamental meaning for the entire European civilization. In Auschwitz we can fully confront and address the most important questions about: mankind, society, the poisonous fruit of anti-Semitism, racial hatred and contempt towards others. [25]

State donors for the preservation of Auschwitz-Birkenau include these main contributors: Germany ($80 million), the United States ($15 million), Poland ($13 million), the European Union ($5.9 million), Israel ($1.5million) and Canada ($400,000). However, less than a year after the establishment of the foundation for the site, the shortcomings of the museum were exposed in terms of security (with the stealing of the Arbeit Macht Frei sign in January 2010) and continuing conservation issues.[26] In an interview in The National Post as recent as May 5, 2013, Eli Rubenstein (an Auschwitz tour guide) has shown that the problem of decay at Auschwitz is still very real despite significant funds being raised and action taken.[27] It may, in fact, be an impossibility in terms of long-term preservation. The fact that, “with each spring thaw, shifts in the soil threaten to deliver a final, devastating blow to the fields of ruins”[28] is not the only daunting part of this task. Specialists in building infrastructure have the goal of restoring three brick barracks per year. This is an exceedingly expensive task that requires significant underground work, installing concrete foundations to slow the effects of the shifting ground. Conserving one brick barrack is expected to cost as much as $1 million.[29] As if that weren’t overwhelming enough, specialists in charge of deteriorating personal effects have noted that each individual shoe takes two hours to clean and inspect.[30] With hundreds of thousands of shoes alone, these specialists feel a sense of urgency like no other.

While the wooden barracks have long rotted away and brick barracks are on the verge of collapse, Rubenstein notes that despite the uphill battle, the crucial nature of preserving the places in which atrocities occurred cannot be underestimated. These are not only sites to animate narratives of survivors but they also hold power in themselves: “That power never diminishes. But, it’s only effective because the barrack is still standing to tell the story,” he said. “It’s only effective if the survivor is saying ‘I lay in this barrack and this is where my father saved my life.’”[31]

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It is on this critical point that I will conclude and know that I do so, because in a similar way as the survivors mention, I have wondered if such a massive project of conservation is worth the effort against what seems like a futile end-goal. However, if we accept that places can tell us volumes of historical information and can made to do so as well, then the narrative of the Holocaust relies on future funding for Auschwitz’s conservation in a collaborative effort, first and foremost. Simultaneous to this, while the issue of religious contestation may only be overcome through the creation of impermanent rituals of healing on the grounds of Auschwitz, the sacralization of Auschwitz as an inverse moral hierophany must be abandoned, and by scholars especially. It does not lend itself well to comprehending the factors that allowed for Auschwitz to occur, nor the possibility of another Auschwitz. The challenges of evoking sensations and understanding from a place like Auschwitz, particularly in an educational way for people with no experience of the camp, are real, particularly as time marches on, survivors continue to pass on and we get further away from the immediacy of this historical episode; however, none of this can even begin to be addressed if the space of Auschwitz is not given primacy through conservation efforts first. Given that the exhibits at Auschwitz-Birkenau still have not been altered in over sixty years and the grounds and artifacts are deteriorating faster than specialists can preserve and restore them, it looks like there is a long way to go in putting place first, before it is too late.

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[1] “U.S. Sacred Ground Foundation Wants to Build Sanctuary in Auschwitz.” Krakow Post. Accessed December 10, 2014.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] “An Aboriginal Experience in Auschwitz.” Krakow Post. Accessed December 10, 2014.

[5] Basso, Keith H. “Wisdom Sits in Places” in Senses of Place. Ed. Feld and Basso. School of American Research Press: Sante Fe. 2001, pp. 55

[6] Ibid

[7] Ibid, pp. 56

[8] “US Will Give $15M for Auschwitz Museum.” Krakow Post. Accessed December 10, 2014.; “Auschwitz Still Seeking Funding.” Krakow Post. Accessed December 10, 2014. “Auschwitz Museum to Receive EU Funds.” Krakow Post. Accessed December 10, 2014.;  “Poles Ask the World for Funds to Stop Auschwitz Falling into Ruin.” Mail Online. Accessed December 10, 2014.; “With Auschwitz’s Historic Grounds Falling into Disrepair, Poland Appeals for International Funds to Preserve Concentration Camp.” National Post News. Accessed December 10, 2014.;  “Auschwitz-Birkenau.” Auschwitz-Birkenau. Accessed December 10, 2014.; “Poles Ask the World for Funds to Stop Auschwitz Falling into Ruin.” The Evening Standard. Accessed December 10, 2014.; Warsaw, Matthew. “Auschwitz Museum ‘needs £113m’ for Repair Work.” The Telegraph. April 24, 49. Accessed December 10, 2014.; “Can Auschwitz Be Saved?” History, Travel, Arts, Science, People, Places | Smithsonian. Accessed December 10, 2014.; Berg, Raffi. “Cash Crisis Threat to Auschwitz.” BBC News. January 26, 2009. Accessed December 10, 2014.

[9] “Can Auschwitz Be Saved?” History, Travel, Arts, Science, People, Places | Smithsonian. Accessed December 10, 2014.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid

[12]“Auschwitz’s Deterioration Alarming to Conservators.” Ocala Star-Banner. February 19, 1990. Accessed December 10, 2014.,7711723.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] “Can Auschwitz Be Saved?” History, Travel, Arts, Science, People, Places | Smithsonian. Accessed December 10, 2014.

[16] Ibid.

[17] “Archaeologists Make More Historic Finds at Site of Sobibor Gas Chambers – Jewish World News.” Accessed December 10, 2014.

[18] “Reconstructing Attitudes to Judaism in Poland.” Krakow Post. Accessed December 10, 2014.

[19] “With Auschwitz’s Historic Grounds Falling into Disrepair, Poland Appeals for International Funds to Preserve Concentration Camp.” National Post News. Accessed December 10, 2014.;  “Auschwitz-Birkenau.” Auschwitz-Birkenau.


[21] “Counting the Cost.” Krakow Post. Accessed December 10, 2014.

[22] “Poles Ask the World for Funds to Stop Auschwitz Falling into Ruin.” The Evening Standard. Accessed December 10, 2014.

[23]“Counting the Cost.” Krakow Post. Accessed December 10, 2014., emphasis added

[24] “Mission of the Foundation.” Mission of the Foundation. Accessed December 10, 2014.

[25] Ibid.

[26] “Auschwitz Still Seeking Funding.” Krakow Post. Accessed December 10, 2014.

[27] “With Auschwitz’s Historic Grounds Falling into Disrepair, Poland Appeals for International Funds to Preserve Concentration Camp.” National Post News. Accessed December 10, 2014.;  “Auschwitz-Birkenau.” Auschwitz-Birkenau.

[28] Ibid

[29] Ibid

[30] Ibid

[31] Ibid




The Drawing Board is pleased to announce that our very own writer and researcher, Liz Hill, has been awarded the Field Law Leilani Muir Graduate Research Scholarship for her work in History. The award is funded by Field Law via the Edmonton Community Foundation and the Calgary Foundation in honour of the legal victory won by Leilani Muir and victims of sterilization. It is awarded to a graduate student in Sociology, Psychology, or History and Classics who demonstrates research promise. Preference is given to students whose research interests are related to the areas of human rights, persons with disabilities, or social well-being. Join us in celebrating Liz’s success!

lizLiz’s thesis research deals with the subjects of madness and leprosy in the late Middle Ages. Entitled “Roots of Persecution: Madness and Leprosy in the late Middle Ages,” Liz’s thesis addresses the conceptual underpinnings of persecution by comparing medieval intellectual and moral understandings of madness and leprosy to the social treatment of lepers and mad people in the twelfth through fifteenth centuries. She focuses in particular on the collective social identity and treatment of the leper in contrast to the individualized identities and treatment of mad people, and how that difference explains the periodic persecutory violence to which lepers were subjected, but not mad people.

It cannot be denied that Medieval Iberia represents an incredible example of cultural and intellectual diversity that was unique in Europe and may lack a comparable example elsewhere in the world for the same length of time (711 – 1492CE). However, some historians have overemphasized the harmonious atmosphere between groups on the peninsula by characterizing their coexistence as convivencia – a word that can carry overly positive connotations and might gloss over important political, religious, economic and ethnic competitions between various groups throughout this period. In her text, The Ornament of the World, Maria Rosa Menocal upholds the positive image (if not the word) of convivencia in Iberia by examining cultural prosperity in the era of Islamic polities and beyond. Elsewhere, Menocal makes it clear that her invocation of the spirit of the term is polemical in helping to establish a counter-narrative to the hegemonic discourse that excludes and Others al-Andalus from European intellectual history. Other historians such as Richard Fletcher prefer to complicate convivencia as having less to do with harmonious coexistence and more to do with simply “living together” – something that was far from a “straightforward business” and may have carried with it an ever-looming possibility of violence.[1] Still others such as Alex Novikoff take the middle road between pedestalizing convivencia and villainizing interreligio-ethnic contests in Iberia, drawing on examples of either tolerance or intolerance. Olivia Remie Constable sees no such value in the term, nor its opposite (Reconquista) which both serve to polarize and thereby simplify our understanding of Iberian history. In contrast, the value of the term is reified by Thomas Glick, who sees its rescue as an opportunity for learning about the process of acculturation and what it says about cultural and social interactions between people in Iberia and our contemporary period. Its reification in spirit (if not name) is also a method used by Janina Safran in her study of identity and differentiation between Christians and Muslims in 9th Century al-Andalus. In my mind, Safran stands with David Nirenberg who seems to belong to the camp of those who advocate the abandonment of a term such as convivencia (and its opposites) because it can obfuscate the multi-layered complexities between identity groups that give rise to both positive and negative realities within one society. To borrow Nirenberg’s language, what is at stake in tallying a society’s “assets and liabilities” is the “commodification” of its historical experiences which usually have less to do with the actual history and more to do with the historian’s current moment.[2]

What is at stake in the term convivencia is whether or not Iberia was unique and if there is something for the historian to learn from its uniqueness with regards to our modern situation. In this paper, I will briefly examine the definition of convivencia from the scholars listed above in greater depth, illuminating the term’s contestation, modification or abandonment among them. In surveying the variant ways in which scholars have made use of the term convivencia, it becomes clear that it has taken on a multiplicity of meaning and layers of complexity that run counter to the idea of it as an oversimplified, reified concept. Ultimately, however, I will side with Menocal (with a few modifications) to show that until the public hegemonic myth that excludes al-Andalus from European history is adequately complicated by examples of Iberian convivencia, abandonment of this term as a historical commodifier runs the risk of historians reneging on a discursive ethical imperative. I will conclude by showing why, in both academic and non-academic circles, commodification or crystallization, is inevitable and thus, why that imperative matters.

In The Ornament of the World, Menocal does not use the word convivencia to refer to Medieval Iberia, a point about her work echoed again in Novikoff’s historiography of the term.[3] In fact, Menocal is clear that her examination of “cultural tolerance and symbiosis” which Europe inherited from al-Andalus is not meant to “replace all the older clichés [of Medieval intolerance and darkness] with another equally simplistic new one” – i.e. a tale of convivencia.[4] However, in reading her text, it becomes very clear that Menocal is not only interested in upholding al-Andalus as the center of multiple medieval golden ages and muffling differences, but that she is also willing to do so by distorting or dismissing the influence of other civilizations such as the Almoravids and the Almohads. Novikoff chalks this paradoxical approach up to the fact that Menocal has not defined what cultural tolerance is, nor is she interested in how it differs from either social or political forms of tolerance. Rather, what is at stake for Menocal is the mythologizing of al-Andalus’ incredible literary, social and artistic achievements by finding their origin in the attitudes of the Ummayads and their demise in the religious fanaticism of both Christians and Muslims.[5] I use the term mythologizing here because, in relation to other works by Menocal, it becomes clear she is employing a conscious program of rewriting history against other, more dominant histories. In “The Myth of Westernness in Medieval Literary Historiography,” Menocal follows in similar footsteps as the likes of Hayden White and other Critical Memory theorists who concur that “our writing of history is as much a myth-making activity as that of more primitive [sic] societies.”[6] She explores Western discourse’s preoccupation with their own intellectual heredity, shattering notions of the East-West dichotomy by pointing out how their particular myth comes with a dominant and selective forgetting of al-Andalus’ instigation and propagation of the so-called “West’s” intellectual Renaissance.[7] Her call for the inclusion of Andalusian influence in Western literary historiography is characterized as involving a major paradigm shift of unimaginable proportions because it requires the reimagining of Western civilization as being “indebted to and dependent on a culture… regarded as inferior…and as the quintessence of the foreign and the Other.”[8] Since this paradigm shift is Menocal’s project, it makes sense that Ornament be read as the development of a counter-myth to hegemony, explaining why her work focuses more on positive outcomes of tolerant, co-existing cultures, rather than seeking to complicate images of that coexistence. This purposeful and selective retelling is in direct resistance to typical European narratives that not only black out everything between antiquity and the Renaissance, but also might view an Arab-centred historical reconstruction with the same disdain felt towards Darwinian evolution theories – that Europeans were “descended from apes.”[9]

Without invoking such pejorative imagery, multiple historians have complicated this view of coexistence, either declaring it inadequate, expanding its meaning to include positive and negative cultural interactions, or abandoning it completely in favour of some other historical lens. Constable claims, in the introduction to her Medieval Iberia Reader, that “the diversities of Iberian history cannot be fully explained by either harmonious convivencia or hostile Reconquista[10]– presumably using each term in its most typical form. Not only did elements of both exist, but each term also represents a mythologizing that, in its overuse, simplifies Iberian history. Her collection of primary source documents that follow are intended to show differences but also points of contact between varying groups.[11] The reader is meant to pass from source to source, drawing their own conclusions organically or in contrast to other historians’ secondary interpretations, and ultimately, what is meant to come through is that no such terms can capture all the different kinds of people, groups, affiliations and so forth that are found in these sources. While this may be true, the uniqueness of the situation in which these documents arose should not be neglected. Without some kind of coexistence, it is hard to imagine the need for texts like “The Pact of ‘Umar,” “The Treaty of Tudmir,” Abraham ibn Daud’s “Book of Tradition,” Samuel Ibn Naghrela’s “Battle of Alfuente” and many more. While there are many counter examples, these simply represent more extreme negotiations of coexistence at different times and in different contexts. A relativist might argue that no historical experience rises above another and, as such, Iberia is not a shining example above Europe and Islamic polities; however, in various documents throughout the text, not only is sharing and coexistence the principle put forth, it is the means by which those documents could even have arisen.

Novikoff’s somewhat tepid contribution to this discussion is simply to say that the academic community can find in Medieval Iberia instances of both tolerance and intolerance, making it a place and time of study that is fruitful for lessons drawn from the past.[12] The presumption is that historians are not just writing history for the sake of recording it, but rather to lend a better understanding to our present moment – something difficult to argue against. Richard Fletcher takes a rather different approach to our contemporary learning than both Menocal and Constable because of a different overall purpose, tackling the issue of convivencia head-on in his chapter of the same name. While he acknowledges the unique cultural and intellectual achievements of Iberian coexistence, using many of the sources we find in Constable’s reader, he is quick to point out that multi-religio-ethnic groups living together is, by no means, an anomaly and can be found elsewhere.[13] What is unique about Iberia is how long-lasting that coexistence was compared to other European examples.[14] And yet, Fletcher falls short of accounting for why it was so long-lasting, other than to say that outright slaughter of one another was not an option due to the economic value of keeping people alive. The implication is that convivencia was undertaken begrudgingly, out of necessity and not attitude, and that – citing the unfortunate tale of Ramon Llull and his slave as evidence – at any moment this fragile balance could be disrupted and made violent.[15] It is harder to know who Fletcher is talking to here, but his work can be taken two ways. Firstly, Fletcher’s characterization of convivencia could be taken as an example of the hard work that went into coexistence for these groups, including cultural and intellectual exchanges, rather than something to be taken for granted. In terms of the current moment, it would signify that such experiments require continuous effort to retain some semblance of cohesion, if not harmony. More skeptically, from the perspective of the hegemonic discourse to which Menocal spoke, such a compromise of the term might be a vindication of Euro-centric discourses, particularly those that amplify the Reconquista narratives of taking back the peninsula from untrustworthy Muslims and Jews who could turn on Christians at any time.

Glick straddles the middle ground between Menocal’s selective cohesive imagery and Fletcher’s more cynical look, while tackling the definitions and the use of the term convivencia directly. Rather than discard the term like Constable, he notes that convivencia has been used as a synonym for coexistence but also “carries connotations of mutual interpenetration and creative influence, even as it also embraces the phenomena of mutual friction, rivalry and suspicion.”[16] He is also careful to point out that even definitions of the term that carry these connotations assume a lot about different religio-ethnic groups, including the fact that people saw themselves as bound by those identities or bound to play the roles ascribed to them. This highlights the permeability of multiple social strata by different individuals, depending on which role was being played at any given time, including interactions structured along the lines of social class, as well.[17] The latter point, coupled with the fact that both Andalusian and Christian-dominated polities may have isolated minorities religiously or ethnically but not economically, added a different dimension of social tension.[18] What convivencia does for Glick is highlight the flexibility of identity depending on the circumstances, challenging the self-affirming image “of a sealed, pristine, pure and uncontaminated culture” that groups use in their discourse, with the realities of a mixed, everyday lived experience.

In “What Can Medieval Spain Teach Us About Muslim-Jewish Relations,” Nirenberg echoes Glick in examining what Iberia can teach us about the present moment, especially in light of multivalent, multidirectional understandings of identity. Nirenberg also offers a deeper level of understanding to modern conflicts between Muslims and Jews through the lens of coexistence in Iberia. Eyeing the myth of convivencia, without naming it so, Nirenberg explains how Jewish historians of the late 19th century had perpetuated writing about the age of Islamic tolerance, particularly juxtaposed against persecution from (re)conquering Christians and then modern Europeans. However, with the creation of the State of Israel, Muslim-Jewish relations have become much more central in collective consciousness than either of those two groups as they relate to Christians. As such, historians revisiting Medieval Iberia as a case study have sought to uphold the moniker of convivencia in reifying the Jewish Golden Age narrative, or have sought origins of Anti-Semitism among Arabs by examining darker periods of competition, polemics and persecution in Iberia. Nirenberg cuts through both narrative extremes by pointing out that Iberia was, in fact, unique, especially as it regards Jews, because they carried a historical memory of the “relative merits of life under Islam and under Christendom…[and represent] a precious example of a society in which Jews and Muslims were able to engage each other in open competition and conflict as they work out the terms of their own existence.”[19] Thus, Nirenberg does not, after all, outrightly dismiss the possibility of convivencia but seeks to find the factors that coalesced to make a picture of that coexistence less than rosy. Among his conclusions is the fact that Muslim-Jewish dialogue was always mediated by or through Christians, Christianity, Christendom and Christian representations of both groups. Historians relating to the modern period would do well to heed Nirenberg’s warning of forgetting the intruding “third voice” that permeate(s/d) Muslim-Jewish relations, and arguably, mutate(s/d) them.[20]

In “Identity and Differentiation in Ninth Century al-Andalus,” Janina Safran is also careful not to speak explicitly of convivencia, but instead, also shows how a nuanced view of coexistence, such as that espoused in Glick, results in a better understanding of the negotiations of identity for both Muslims and Christians as they dealt with the realities of that coexistence –including acculturation, interfaith marriage and conversion. The picture painted is less about impending violence (though is shown to have happened in Safran’s work, particularly as it relates to the martyrs of Cordoba) and more about the work that goes into living together and issues that arise as a result. Concerns about the corruption of the religion dominated discussions among Muslims, who found legal methods of protecting the religious orthodoxy while accommodating an influx of converts and, to a lesser extent, marriages to dhimmis. Safran’s work stands as a brilliant middle ground between Menocal and Fletcher – giving voice to the cultural-legal achievements of Medieval Islamic polities while showing that cohesion may have required hard work, but violence was not necessarily a given. For Nirenberg, violent competition was also not a determined consequence and it only arose in relation to the presence of a disenfranchised third party, the deposed Christians. For Safran, this might well have been true, but violence was not a given for less cynical reasons than Fletcher: people did not avoid slaughtering each other because it would have made poor economic sense to do so; they kept each other around because, after generations of sharing and intermixing, Muslims, Christians and Jews were not only sharing communities, languages, culture and economic status, but family units too. The work that went into convivencia, however complicated it was and, at times, contradictory to the implied meaning of the term, was undertaken as an attitude of relationality, an experiment (to use Fletcher’s term) which, for a long time, succeeded. Focusing on learning from those successes as they pertain to our modern situation is as admirable an endeavour as a historian can hope to undertake, though I recognize that this is not the raison d’etre of every historian.

The question that then follows is this: if it is possible to have all of these variations (positive and negative) coexist, so to speak, under the banner of convivencia, then why abandon it as Constable has recommended? What is gained in such secondary analyses which do abandon it, like that of Safran and Nirenberg? It might be said that within highly elite historical discourse, the abandonment of the term convivencia with its rosy implications may allow for the brilliant nuanced arguments we see in Safran and Nirenberg, and which are allowed to arise organically from Constable’s assemblage of primary sources. There is no prescribed conclusion from which to start and, as such, an examination of coexistence in Iberia can include everything rosy and not-so-rosy. As an intradisciplinary conversation, this is perfectly acceptable. However, history is not only the task of academics, nor is its relevance only found in scholarly circles and so we must also ask what is lost in the abandonment of convivencia. Arguably, the work done in the agreements, disagreements and amendments by academics contributes to an overall, collective narrative that then trickles down or is forcefully brought to the level of civil policy, education curriculums (including introductory programs at public universities) and other public avenues. The histories told there will invariably do violence to the meticulous work of the historian by virtue of their crystallization (or as Nirenberg terms it, “commodification”).[21] In other words, these crystallizations will serve political purposes for those who employ them and this will almost always lead to manipulation and oppression, as univocal histories cannot help but do, however intentional. Thus, the role of the historian is not only intradisciplinary but can also be extradisciplinary. A translation of academic discourse must take place to compete in the public educational arena where political discourse and power resulting from certain uses of history dominate. As such, I return to Menocal and her project of using convivencia to tell the main narrative of Medieval Iberia, focusing on cultural and intellectual flourishing, as a counter-point to hegemonic narratives that continue to trace the Renaissance in a straight line from Antiquity to the modern era with no Iberian pit-stops in between. However imperfect her conclusions may appear within Iberian academic discourse and however much farther she had to push them (particularly in terms of including the Almohads as part of the intellectual inheritance of Europe), her preliminary stance offers a delightful muddying of illusions of “pure” cultural achievements of transcendental value[22] that arise from within any discipline’s particular ideological rootedness.[23] Convivencia opens a door to Iberian studies and the development of an understanding of intellectual heredity that hegemonic narratives do not even recognize exists. Its relevance to challenging and breaking down the current myths by which powerful political forces dichotomize the East and West and engage in ever violent activity is too salient to ignore, and for historians who recognize history as the weapon that it is, (for either hegemony or resistance) it ought not to be ignored.


Constable, Olivia Remie, ed. Medieval Iberia: Readings from Christian, Muslim, and Jewish Sources. University of Pennsylvania Press: Philadelphia, (2012)

Fletcher, Richard. Moorish Spain. University of California: Berkeley. (1992)

Glick, Thomas, “Convivencia: An Introductory Note” in Convivencia: Jews, Muslims, and Christians in Medieval Spain, Mann, Glick, and Dodds, eds. George Braziller Publishing: New York (1992)

Menocal, Maria Rosa. The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain. Back Bay Books: New York. (2002)

Menocal, Maria Rosa, “The Myth of Westernness in Medieval Literary Historiography” in The New Crusades: Constructing the Muslim Enemy, eds. Emran Qureshi and Michael Sells, Columbia University Press: New York, 2003, p249-87.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. On The Use and Abuse of History. Cosimo Printing: New York. 2005.

Nirenberg, David. “What Can Medieval Spain Teach Us About Muslim-Jewish Relations?” CCAR Journal: A Reform Jewish Quarterly (Summer, 2002)

Novikoff, Alex. “Between Tolerance and Intolerance in Medieval Spain: An Historiographic Enigma,” Medieval Encounters. 11.1-2 (2005).

[1] Fletcher, Richard. Moorish Spain. University of California: Berkeley. (1992) p 135.

[2] Nirenberg, David. “What Can Medieval Spain Teach Us About Muslim-Jewish Relations?” CCAR Journal: A Reform Jewish Quarterly (Summer, 2002) p 19.

[3] Novikoff, Alex. “Between Tolerance and Intolerance in Medieval Spain: An Historiographic Enigma,” Medieval Enocunters. 11.1-2 (2005) p 7-8.

[4] Menocal, Maria Rosa. The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain. Back Bay Books: New York. (2002) p 13.

[5] Novikoff, p 9.

[6] Menocal, Maria Rosa, “The Myth of Westernness in Medieval Literary Historiography” in The New Crusades: Constructing the Muslim Enemy, eds. Emran Qureshi and Michael Sells, Columbia University Press: New York, 2003, p 249.

[7] Menocal, “The Myth”, p 250.

[8] Ibid, p 257.

[9] Ibid, p 251.

[10] Constable, Olivia Remie. Medieval Iberia: Readings from Christian, Muslim, and Jewish Sources. University of Pennsylvania Press: Philadelphia, (2012)p xxix.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Novikoff, p 36.

[13] Fletcher, p 134-5.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid. p 155-6.

[16] Glick, Thomas, “Convivencia: An Introductory Note” in Convivencia: Jews, Muslims, and Christians in Medieval Spain, Mann, Glick, and Dodds, eds. George Braziller Publishing: New York (1992) p 1.

[17] Ibid, p 4.

[18] Ibid

[19] Nirenberg, p 20.

[20] Ibid, p 22.

[21] Nietzsche, Friedrich. On The Use and Abuse of History. Cosimo Printing: New York. 2005.

[22] Menocal, “The Myth” p 267.

[23] Ibid. p 266.

In “Identity and Differentiation in Ninth Century al-Andalus,” Janina Safran examines legal texts of the Andalusi ‘ulama to reveal that the close proximity of Muslims and Christians (as the minority group) elicited anxieties among Muslims which primarily centered on the introduction of innovations that would corrupt the faith.[1] Fast-forward six hundred years to a reversal of this political situation, where Muslims formed the minority under Christian polities, and one can see that these anxieties largely remained the same, despite the power reversal. Other historical examples of this abound and this is, in large part, due to the presence of this preoccupation in the Qur’an and hadith; however, the degree to which such anxieties are warranted varies. Examining the Asna al-Matair and Marabella fatwas by al Wansharisi (translated by Dr. Jocelyn Hendrickson), it is possible to sift through the debates surrounding the historical veracity and authorial authenticity of these texts to highlight some of the key contemporary anxieties, of which religious innovations is paramount. In examining Ica de Gebir’s Breviario Sunni, we find a primary source attesting to how genuine these concerns might have been.

The Asna al-Matajir and Marabella fatwas by al-Wansharisi contain concerns for Muslim minority populations remaining under Christian majority rule in Iberia and represents a watershed moment in the fiqh, not because this situation was unique (in fact, it had happened in the Holy Land during the Crusades and in Sicily with the Norman invasions)[2], but because the documents that relate to these concerns have been well-preserved and made available to us.[3] This is more likely to have happened with regards to Iberia because the Muslim population coming under Christian rule there would have been much larger, warranting more attention to this matter. Additionally, encroachments along the coastal regions of the Maghrib by the Portuguese would have warranted a greater need for the emigration of Muslims there, allowing for the fortification of military arrangements and lending manpower in a time of fitnah.[4] There is some debate around whether or not the questioner in these fatwas (named Abu ‘Abd Allah ibn Qatiya) was real, or if he was conjured as a strawman to give al-Wansharisi a platform for his research opinion. Additionally, the authenticity of this being al-Wansharisi’s opinion is also in question as, it appears, that the bulk of both of these fatwas was plagiarized from a fatwa of similar concerns by Ibn Rabi. Regardless of these questions of verification and authorship, these fatwas still provide us with a window into some dominant concerns related to Muslim minority populations living under Christian rule.

In the Asna, the land of Christian-majority rule is characterized by “sin and falsehood”, which will result in “oppression or discord (fitnah)” for Muslims who remain there.[5] Among the recommendations to take only other Muslims as allies[6], to emigrate to guarantee the inviolability of Muslim property[7], to avoid the seduction of “ephemeral worldly pursuits”[8], and to stop paying taxes in financial support of Christians[9], is a persistence about the problem of religious corruption from living under Christians. In fact, al-Wansharisi goes so far as to say that “their corrupting ideas (fitna) are more severely damaging than the trials of hunger, fear, or the plundering of people and property.”[10] The repetition of the term fitnah here illustrates that it is used to represent both discord and corrupting ideas. This is a testament to the term’s overall connotations that corruptive ideas bring religious innovation and eventually total discord. Instability or chaos comes from bid’ah (innovation).

Where the fear of religious corruption is embedded in the Asna, it is the chief concern in the Marabella fatwa. Here, al-Wansharisi’s answer is dominated by concerns over “the pollutions, the filth, and the religious and worldly corruptions to which this gives rise.”[11] Paramount among these corruptions are the problems created for Islamic orthopraxis: the fulfillment of prayers (belittled and ridiculed), the giving of alms (to a legitimate ruler), fasting during Ramadan (which requires the sighting of the moon by an appropriate imam or deputy), the Hajj (which is no longer possible) and the waging of jihad.[12] Since Islam is not a Deen of orthodoxy (or the possession of internal beliefs alone), the removal of the possibility of practice (in their eyes) would be the equivalent of religious contamination, if not total destruction. Further, sexual and marital corruption are couched in similar terms, contrary to what one might expect in the modern, post-Blood period – that is, that mixing would be a contamination of kinship lines. The concern about a Muslim woman marrying a Christian man is in the expected fact that he would “entice and mislead her as to her religion, overpowering her so that she submits to him, and so that apostasy and religious corruption come between her and her guardian.”[13] Additionally, the loss of language is associated with the loss of the acts of worship.[14]

It is not only in the answers to the questioners that we find a preoccupation with religious innovation, and perhaps this is the point at which it is most expected to arise. Rather, embedded within the questions themselves, a fear of bid’ah reveals itself. If we look back to the debate of authorship and authenticity regarding the existence of these questioners, we have to recognize that the presence of these anxieties in the questions does not necessarily translate into representing real-world fear of innovation. If these questioners were, however, constructed as strawmen by al-Wansharisi, their fears still reaffirm his fears also found in his answers. In the Ansa, the questioner (“ibn Qatiya”) discusses the intentions of a group of Andalusis to emigrate, presuming that they originally came to Maghrib “for the sake of God, taking with them [only] their religion.”[15] It was not until they arrived in the Maghrib and found that the material reality available to them was worse than they realized it would be that they began to curse their emigration. Because actions in Islamic contexts are how niyyah (intention) is deduced,[16] this showed that their intention for emigration had never been pure or predicated on “the true purpose of emigration [which is] the protection of religion, family and offspring.”[17] Similarly, in the Marabella fatwa, the question of giving dispensation for one man to continue living in Iberia as a representative of the Muslim minority population is negated by greater concerns about “major ritual impurities” which would result in one’s inability to practice their Islam – giving way to the possibility (even certainty) of religious corruption.[18]

While we have seen that innovation has been a preoccupation for Muslims and Islamic authorities throughout time[19], how warranted was this concern at this particular point in time? A comprehensive analysis is needed, but for the purposes of this paper, I will examine the first chapter of Ica de Gebir’s Breviario Sunni to shed a small amount of light on this issue. As was pointed out by Dr. Jocelyn Hendrickson, the beginning of this chapter, while mentioning the five pillars of Islam, disperses them amongst Commandments that resonate with those found in the Old Testament, including not taking the Creator’s name in vain and not committing murder or fornication.[20] It is also within the first couple of lines that we have mention of one’s neighbour – a figure that permeates the text as someone you must not only desire things for (which you also want for yourself), but also someone to be honoured, someone who must not be lived next to if evil, and eventually, someone who could be Allah with the right course taken.[21] Though the neighbour figures into Islamic discourse[22], it is much more closely associated with Biblical scripture imploring the loving of one’s neighbour and its repetition in this text could signify an allusion to Christian texts or doctrine.[23] Further, perhaps the most important clause of the entire text reads, “be faithful to your lord, even though he is not a Muslim”[24] – a sentiment in direct tension with the arguments of al-Wansharisi’s fatwas which came after them. We cannot deduce direct causation between these documents (ie. that the sentiment that one caused the other to be written); however, if Mudejars had been convincing themselves overall to accept non-Muslim rulers (as is evidenced in all three texts), this would be grounds for issuing fatwas condemning such obedience, particularly for the reasons of detriment to praxis outlined above. While there are clear forbiddances of adopting Christian practices and an emphasis on both knowing and enforcing Islamic law, that does not take away from the fact that this chapter and other parts of the text are permeated through with Christian sentiments – and exactly because of their submersion in the text, these would have caused serious anxiety in prominent religious scholars who recognized that the most dangerous forms of innovation are those that go undetected and are assimilated as part of Islam.[25] The line between what Islam shares with Christianity because of their perceived Abrahamic origins and what is inappropriately adopted from them in the post-revelation era is defined by an ever-elusive line.

This paper will have to end here with the conclusion that like other eras of Islamic history, preoccupations of religious scholars during the Mudejar period centred on the problem religious innovation. While the al-Wansharisi fatwas can also be used to show how Portuguese encroachments on Maghrib coastlines were also an anxiety or can expose the inner politics of subjectivity in the writing of fatwas, there is still an undeniable religious dimension to these texts that is not contrived. Though this realization might seem self-evident based on what we seen in the studied primary texts and what we know of the centrality of Bid’ah as a problem in the Qur’an and hadith, future archival and primary source research is needed to push all of this a step further – namely, in looking at how highlighting the overwhelming concern of religious innovation for Muslims helps for understanding (comparatively) what sorts of anxieties plagued Christians about intermixing, acculturation and conversions. Where Muslim dissuasion of interactions with Christians have been put in terms of the fear of bid’ah and Christian conversions to Islam seem to have been couched in concerns over the loss of their tax contributions and political tensions that might result, Christians have shown not only disinterest in religious corruption, but the regular dismissal of Others, distinguishing them by virtue of ethnic origins (blood), even when they had converted to Christianity. Alas, this is research for another time.[26]

[1] Safran, Janina, “Identity and Differentiation in Ninth Century Al-Andalus” in Speculum, Vol 76:3, 2001. pp. 576

[2] Indeed, this reasoning even appears in the Asna fatwa in Hendrickson, Jocelyn, “The Islamic Obligation to Emigrate: Al-Wansharisi’s Asna al-Matajir Reconsidered,” PhD dissertation, Emory University. Appendix A, p 10.

[3] Documents for other areas of Muslim minority existence certainly exist; however, it is my understanding that their number is far fewer than as it relates to Iberia. Sarah David-Secord’s “Muslims in Norman Sicily: The Evidence of Imam al-Mazari’s Fatwas” (Mediterranean Studies, Vol 16; 2007; p 46-66) is worth a read for that particular case. More research is needed on this.

[4] Hendrickson, Jocelyn, “Muslim Legal Responses to Portuguese Occupation in Late Fifteenth Century North Africa” in Journal of Spanish Cultural Studies. Vol 12:3, 2011, pp 309-325.

[5] Al-Wansharisi, Ahmad. “Asna al-matajir” trans. Jocelyn Hendrickson, in “The Islamic Obligation to Emigrate: Al-Wansharisi’s Asna al-Matajir Reconsidered,” PhD dissertation, Emory University. Appendix A, p 3

[6] Ibid p 6-7

[7] Ibid p 14-15

[8] Ibid p 21

[9] Ibid p 23; Financial support of the Christians through taxes was presumably perceived as being to the detriment of Muslims in the distant hopes of taking back al-Andalus but more realistically in defeating Christians along the Moroccan coast. See footnote 4.

[10] Ibid p 22

[11] Ahmad al-Wansharisi, “The Marabella fatwa” trans. Jocelyn Hendrickson in “The Islamic Obligation to Emigrate: Al-Wansharisi’s Asna al-Matajir Reconsidered,” PhD dissertation, Emory University. Appendix B, p 32

[12] Ibid p 33-34

[13] Ibid p 36; This understanding of the corruptive possibilities of mixed marriage also represents a continuity with fears shown in legal texts in the ninth century – see Safran, p 583.

[14] Ibid

[15] Asna, translation, p 2

[16] Rosen, Laurence. Bargaining for Reality: The Construction of Social Relations in a Muslim Community. University of Chicago Press (Chicago and London) 1984.

[17] Asna, translation, P 3

[18] Marabella fatwa, translation, p 31

[19] See Safran reference above. Additionally, as mentioned in the introduction, the fear of Bid’ah (innovation) can be found in Qur’anic and hadith sources as well. The Messenger of Allah (peace be upon him) said: “…Verily he among you who lives [long] will see great controversy, so you must keep to my Sunnah and to the Sunnah of the rightly-guided Khalifahs – cling to them stubbornly. Beware of newly invented matters, for every invented matter is an innovation and every innovation is a going astray, and every going astray is in Hell-fire.” [Abu Dawud and At-Tirmidhi]; Prophet Muhammad, (peace be upon him) said: “He who innovates something that is not in agreement with our matter (religion), will have it rejected.” [Al-Bukhari and Muslim] Bid’ah arises from the following scenarios: Ignorance (“Allah does not erase knowledge (from earth) by erasing knowledge from slaves (hearts). Rather, He erases knowledge through the death of scholars. When He leaves (earth) without scholars, people will take the ignorant as leaders (and scholars). They (the ignorant) will be asked and then give Fatawa without knowledge. Then, they will be lead, and will lead astray.” [Ahmad]); Being led by desire (“But if they answer you not O Muhammad, then know that they only follow their own lusts. And who is more astray then one who follows his own lust (desires) without the guidance from Allah” [Noble Quran 28:50]); blindly follow anyone (““Follow what Allah has sent down.” They say: “Nay! We shall follow what we found our fathers following. Even though their fathers did not understand anything, nor were they guided.” [Noble Quran 2:170]”); and imitating non-Muslims (The Prophet (peace be upon him) said: “Allahu Akbar! It is the Sunan (traditions of the Mushrikun). You said by He Who has my soul in His Hand, what the children of Israel said toMoses: “Make for us gods as they have gods. He said: ‘Verily! You area people who know not.” [7:138]). Other examples of Bid’ah as a continuing anxiety throughout Islamic history could be outlined in a future research paper.

[20] De Gebir, “Breviario Sunni” in Medieval Iberia: Readings from Christian, Muslim, and Jewish Sources. Olivia Remie Constable, ed. Majd Yaser Al-Mallah, trans. University of Pennsylvania Press: Philadelphia, 2012, p 470

[21] Ibid, p 471-2

[22] Narrated Abdullah ibn Amr ibn al-‘As: Mujahid said that Abdullah ibn Amr slaughtered a sheep and said: Have you presented a gift from it to my neighbour, the Jew, for I heard the Apostle of Allah (peace be upon him) say: Gabriel kept on commending the neighbour to me so that I thought he would make an heir? – Sunan Abu Dawood, 2446; Malik related to me from Ibn Shihab from al-Araj from Abu Hurayra that the Messenger of Allah, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, said, “No one should prevent his neighbour from fixing a wooden peg in his wall.” Then Abu Hurayra said, “Why do I see you turning away from it? By Allah! I shall keep on at you about it.” – Malik Al-Muwatta, Volume 36, Number 32; Yahya related to me from Malik from Said ibn Abi Said al-Maqburi from Abu Shurayh al-Kabi that the Messenger of Allah, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, said, “Whoever believes in Allah and the Last Day should speak good or be silent. Whoever believes in Allah and the Last Day should be generous to his neighbour. Whoever believes in Allah and the Last Day, should be generous to his guest. His welcome is for a day and a night, and his hospitality is for three days. Whatever is more than that is sadaqa. It is not halal for a guest to stay with a man until he becomes a burden.” – Malik Al-Muwatta, Volume 49, Number 22; Narrated Abdullah ibn Umar: The Prophet (peace be upon him) said: The best friend in the sight of Allah is he who is the well-wisher of his companions, and the best neighbour is one who behaves best towards his neighbours. Transmitted by Tirmidhi. – Al-Tirmidhi, Number 120; Narrated Abdullah ibn Amr: Allah’s Messenger (peace be upon him) said, “The best companion in Allah’s estimation is the one who is best to his companion, and the best neighbour in Allah’s estimation is the one who is best to his neighbour.” – Al-Tirmidhi, Number 1287; Narrated AbdurRahman ibn AbuQurad: The Prophet performed ablution one day and his companion began to wipe themselves with the water he had used. The Prophet (peace be upon him) asked them what induced them to do that, and when they replied that it was love for Allah and His Messenger (peace be upon him) he said, “If anyone is pleased to love Allah and His Messenger, (peace be upon him) or rather to have Allah and His Messenger (peace be upon him) love him, he should speak the truth when he tells anything, fulfil his trust when he is put in a position of trust, and be a good neighbour.” Bayhaqi transmitted it in Shu’ab al-Iman. – Al-Tirmidhi, Number 1289; Narrated AbuDharr: Allah’s Apostle said: AbuDharr, when you prepare the broth, add water to that and give that (as a present) to your neighbour. – Sahih Muslim, 1208 Narrated AbuHurayrah: The Messenger of Allah) observed: He will not enter Paradise whose neighbour is not secure from his wrongful conduct. – Sahih Muslim, 15; Narrated Abu Huraira: The Prophet said, “Whoever believes in Allah and the Last Day should not hurt (trouble) his neighbor. And I advise you to take care of the women, for they are created from a rib and the most crooked portion of the rib is its upper part; if you try to straighten it, it will break, and if you leave it, it will remain crooked, so I urge you to take care of the women.” – Sahih Al-Bukhari, Volume 7, Number 114; Narrated Abu Shuraih: The Prophet said, “By Allah, he does not believe! By Allah, he does not believe! By Allah, he does not believe!” It was said, “Who is that, O Allah’s Apostle?” He said, “That person whose neighbor does not feel safe from his evil.” – Sahih Al-Bukhari, Volume 8, Number 45; Narrated Abu Huraira: Allah’s Apostle said, “Anybody who believes in Allah and the Last Day should not harm his neighbor, and anybody who believes in Allah and the Last Day should entertain his guest generously and anybody who believes in Allah and the Last Day should talk what is good or keep quiet (i.e. abstain from all kinds of evil and dirty talk).” – Sahih Al-Bukhari, Volume 8, Number 47.

[23] Mark 12:31, Matthew 22:39, 1 John 4:11, John 15:13

[24] De Gebir, p 471.

[25] This is a point concurred even in the introductory paragraph to the text written by Olivia Remie Constable and echoed in her quotation from L.P. Harvey on the subject, that de Gebir’s text seems to seamlessly combine “orthodox Islamic precepts with (often contradictory) ideas from Christian writings,” likely as a result of the stresses on Muslim minorities living under Christian-dominant polities. (470)

[26] Some preliminary texts that have alerted me to this difference (making the proving of bid’ah as uniquely central to Islam and not Christianity) are: Lex Visigothorum in Medieval Iberia: Readings from Christian, Muslim, and Jewish Sources. Olivia Remie Constable, ed. Majd Yaser Al-Mallah, trans. University of Pennsylvania Press: Philadelphia, 2012, p 24- 25; Siete Partidas in Medieval Iberia: Readings from Christian, Muslim, and Jewish Sources. Olivia Remie Constable, ed. Majd Yaser Al-Mallah, trans. University of Pennsylvania Press: Philadelphia, 2012 401-2 and 404; Sicroff, Albert, Los Estatutos de Limpieza de Sangre, Taurus Ediciones, 1985. Chiami, Pablo, Estatutos de Limpieza de Sangre, Centro de Investigación y Difusión de la Cultura Sefardí, 2000; and Anidjar, Gil. Blood: A Critique of Christianity. Columbia University Press: 2014. Much more research is needed to quantify Anidjar’s overall anthropological thesis with meticulous archival research it is currently lacking.

At The Drawing Board, we are not only professional writers, researchers and bloggers, we are also historians and religious studies scholars. Over the weekend, Nakita Valerio and Liz Hill had the privilege of presenting some of their research at the University of Alberta’s Annual HCGSA Conference. Conferencing comes with its own unique atmosphere and experience. You get to meet a lot of really interesting people from around the country, many of whom are also presenting their research. For some, this is the first time they get to talk to someone other than their supervisor about their work. And being crammed into a room listening to lecture upon lecture, conversing over coffee-breaks and provided meals, there is a great deal of camaraderie that comes from conferencing.

Liz presented on her research regarding Leprosy and Madness in the late Medieval period in Europe and had the following to say about the conference experience:

Although we all come from our own little, often esoteric, areas of study, we are able to engage with each others’ work and make connections between our own knowledge and others. Sometimes it’s a stretch, but often it’s illuminating! Another benefit of presenting to a group with diverse expertise, is that it makes you re-evaluate your own work from the perspective of a non-specialist. Day to day we tend to discuss our work and interact with others who have similar backgrounds and topics, so it is easy to assume knowledge about strange things. Presenting outside of that group forces you to refine your ideas and how you present them so that they are accessible. Of course in this case we were still presenting to people who mostly shared similar disciplinary backgrounds, but the field of history is very large! I also learned that answering questions is actually the best part of presenting!

Nakita presented a paper she wrote on the de-sacralization of Auschwitz and issued a call for urgent conservation efforts to be made to the camp if there is any hope of some kind of sufficient memorial to remain there. Her thoughts on the experience of conferencing are as follows:

My favourite part was hearing what everyone is working on. Too often, academics are isolated in their work. Sure, we socialize and hang out, but we rarely get to talk about our work with our peers unless they happen to be in the same research area as us. The general theme of the “Sacred” meant that a lot of the subjects spanned completely different temporal-spatial zones of study and were only  loosely connected by the theme. I loved this aspect. I not only had the opportunity to learn a lot about areas of history that I hadn’t really touched before, but I found them all deeply interesting because they dealt with a lot of the theoretical paradigms that I use to do my own work. I would say I also learned a lot about what goes into making a successful conference. Watching two colleagues of ours in particular running around and taking care of all the details was really illuminating. Lastly, this might surprise some people given how much of my personal and social justice time is devoted to women’s advocacy and education initiatives about the status of women in Islam, but I found it to be really refreshing to be able to talk about something I have devoted a lot of time to researching…something that wasn’t about my hijab or life as a minority in Canada. Don’t get me wrong, I love that stuff too, but as one of the conference organizers put it, “you get to talk about what you do and think about, not just how you dress in the morning!” It was a unique chance to vocalize something I am passionate about for the sake of the subject itself, not just it’s relevance to me or what others would like to hear from me based on my particular skill set.




Historical discussion of the Almoravid and Almohad dynasties tends to conflate the two by labelling them both as Berber and “fundamentalist.” While both dynasties did, indeed, originate in Amazigh tribes from what is now Morocco, their interpretations of Islam were far from the same. Almoravids upheld the Maliki school of fiqh, whereas the Almohads adopted an early form of scripturalism, critical of the Maliki school, combined with ancient philosophy that committed exegesis through the use of reason. To see them as similar or a continuation of one another is a homogenization of their disparate ideological differences and likely arises from a tendency to view their influence as an incursion on an idealized understanding of Andalusian Islams and Iberia’s relegation to the status of an Amazigh colony under both polities. In this paper, I will briefly examine their theo-ideological differences, and other contingencies that separate the two dynasties. I will also examine their similarities and speculate as to the reason for their conflation among historians.

In the Medieval Iberia reader, the distinction between Almoravids and Almohads is ambiguous, partly because the source materials associated with them are lumped into the same chapter, and the dating of these materials can be a bit unclear. The dating of Ibn Abdun’s Hisba Manual is simply “early twelfth century,” which does not leave much information for the reader as to whether it was a specifically Almoravid or Almohad document. Its emphasis on Qur’anic or hadith stipulations for governing the marketplace leaves things up in the air as to who the document could have belonged to as both groups tended towards reinterpreting these key scriptural sources. That being said, the Almoravids did not break from the Maliki school of fiqh as the Almohads did and a thorough study of legal opinions from that school in relation to the prescriptions of this document might help to make the connection (or non-connection) to the Almoravids clearer. The one account we are provided with that is directly attributable to the Almoravids is Al-Idrisi’s Description of Almeria which says little of their ideological preferences or other distinguishing features. It appears that the Almoravids were very much interested in commerce, manufacturing and trade but the same can easily be said about the Almohads whose trade networks would later extend much farther east across the Mediterranean. The other documents in the chapter tend to focus on Almohad theology, their patronage and their treatment of the Jews. It could be that the source materials for the Almoravids in Iberia are simply not available or not directly attributable to them, which leads to a conflation of the two dynasties by virtue of source issues. Looking at how they are arranged in the Medieval Iberia reader is one example of this conflation.

At the beginning of his chapter entitled “Moroccan Fundamentalists” in Moorish Spain, Richard Fletcher notes that although the Almohads were of a remarkably different sect of fundamentalism from the Almoravids, the two groups are “confusingly similar” and “there is nothing that can be done about it.”[1] Maria Rosa Menocal describes both the Almoravids and the Almohads as fundamentalist Berbers from Morocco.[2] It seems that the term fundamentalism is being used here to imply a kind of intolerance based on literal applications of Islamic interpretations. The argument that these two are largely indistinguishable from each other, however, remains unconvincing and in the interests of not generalizing about these groups, it is important to find their key distinguishing features.

Constable argues that the Almohads are easier to trace based on their theological projections being clearer than the Almoravids who preceded them.[3] Although Menocal (wrongfully) claims that the Almohad’s “narrow interpretation of Islam made their scholars far less avid than many Latin readers of [the] scientific and philosophical library,”[4] their Almohad Creed is an excellent example of how the influence of Aristotelian metaphysics impacted Almohad interpretations of Islamic doctrine. Arguments made in the Creed were meant to be tested against one’s own Reason and lived experience in order to arrive at the truth of the Almohad ontology. Sources suggest that this approach was unique to the Almohads and was not shared by the Almoravids who exhibited their “fundamentalism” by extinguishing practices in al-Andalus that were against Islamic fiqh rulings but remained within that rigid framework.[5]

Their differences in ideology are just one area we can use to nuance our demarcation between them. Al-Marrakushi’s history of the Almohads and Ibn Tumart’s rise and take over of Almoravid territory is a primary source document that helps to illustrate not only that these groups were different but that they were in contention with one another. The Almohads gained momentum quickly under Ibn Tumart’s leadership, conquering Almoravid territory in Morocco and into al-Andalus. In looking at their historical interaction, it sounds redundant to say, but these are obviously not the same group. I would go so far as to say that they are not the same brand of so-called fundamentalism either – a term problematic for its anachronistic connotations.

So, it remains, in what instances could it seem appropriate to put the Almoravids and Almohads in the same historical category together? Such an exercise might be useful from an Andalusian perspective as distinctions between the two groups might have been a moot point. The usurpation of power by the Almohads was still the unification of al-Andalus under a foreign polity – both polities which practiced radically different forms of Islam, not only from each other but from Andalusians themselves. In trying to uphold a narrative of Andalusian exceptionalism or preference for their cultural-religious practices, it would make sense to put two foreign, less cosmopolitan conquerors (who arrived one after the other) next to each other. For historians seeking to understand the differences between these two groups and to highlight the unique experience of Andalusians under each one, their conflation is of little value.

[1] Fletcher 105

[2] Menocal 141 and 195-6

[3] Constable 237

[4] Menocal 198

[5] Fletcher, 108.